Wednesday 31 August 2016

Beyond "Plastic Free July": 12 ways to live with less plastic

If you're into minimalism, as I am - travelling light, simple living - sooner or later you find yourself staring at your rubbish bin. I've been a bit fascinated by the idea of Zero Waste for a while. Probably since I first heard about Lauren Singer, a young New Yorker who fit all her garbage for an entire year into a mason jar. 

I love it when people take simple, sustainable living to its extreme (it's why No Impact Man inspired me to start this blog). 

Plastic bag as art,
by Hendrik Kerstens
I also love ideas we can all have a go at, like last month's Plastic Free July

Plastic is the great leveller. We all touch hundreds of pieces of plastic every day - from chairs and keyboards to credit cards and kettles - and probably couldn't live our 21st century lives without it, but no matter who we are or where (or how) we live, nobody on Earth wants plastic pollution.

The problem with Plastic Free July is that it doesn't go far enough for long enough. It focuses on single-use plastic (coffee cups, plastic bags and straws, and bottled water) and it's over as soon as you get the hang of it. 

I know, it's about raising awareness. But what if we could extend Plastic Free July into August, September and beyond?

It's a neverending process anyway, finding ways to live with less plastic that work for each of us in our daily lives.

So here's my own progress report, of sorts: 12 things I'm now doing or have learned about my relationship with plastic, starting with the Big 4, those single-use plastics...

Stormy hot chocolate
in a tea cup
1. Reusable coffee cups. Disposable coffee cups aren't recyclable, no matter how brown-paper they look (UPDATE, 28 Sept: most disposable cups are plastic-lined, but there are now compostable cups made from "bioplastic"), even if you forgo the plastic lid. So I've made a pact with myself: if I want coffee but I've forgotten my reusable coffee cup, I have to sit in the cafe or go without. It helps that I don't drink coffee every day. 

I also try not to use hotel Nespresso machines when I travel; convenient as they are, those coffee pods are killing the environment (as one former Nespresso CEO said this month).

2. Cloth shopping bags. Most of us turned our backs on flimsy supermarket plastic bags years ago, but Australians still dispose of about 4 billion plastic bags a year. My local council (Ballina in northern NSW) recycles soft plastic packaging such as shopping and bread bags, but that's no reason to use them with abandon. Biodegradable bags aren't much better, says Planet Ark, because they can still be ingested by marine animals and take a long time to break down. 
What if every shop had
a sign like this?

Besides, it's so easy to just say "no". The trick is to have a reusable bag when you need it. Some supermarkets charge you for bags (come on down, Aldi!). Others offer customers free cloth Boomerang Bags. Last month Mullumbimby IGA (also in northern NSW) became the first IGA in Australia to go plastic bag-free, largely because of its partnership with Boomerang Bags, which is now in 40+ communities around Australia: locals use scrap fabric to make the bags, and shoppers bring them back the next time they're shopping, hence the "boomerang". A great concept.

I've started lining my kitchen bin with newspaper, which removes another argument for getting the occasional plastic bag. Need more reusable bags? Brisbane-based photographer and travel writer Kara Murphy has tote bags printed with her beautiful underwater pics of turtles.

3. Say "no" to plastic straws. Smoothies (and iced coffees, mmm) have a lot to answer for. Straws are so lightweight they seem to fly of their own accord onto our streets, into drains and down to the sea as soon as the glass is empty. The solution: say no (that's where I'm at), carry a stainless steel straw or ask your favourite cafe to start using paper, stainless, glass or bamboo straws (The Other Straw also has bamboo toothbrushes with reusable handles, and bamboo cutlery). 

4. Stainless steel water bottles. Is anyone in the known world - in places where we can drink tap water without dying - still buying water in plastic bottles? Apparently so. Bottled water is an environmental nightmare on so many levels: it's resource-hungry (it takes 3L of water and 250ml of oil to make a 1L bottle), bottle-manufacture produces CO2, there are transport emissions to think about, and plastic leaching into the water you're drinking, and billions of bottles end up in landfill or our oceans every year. 

I rarely go anywhere without my stainless steel water bottle - usually filled with filtered water (because of chemicals like fluoride in my local tap water, but that's another blog post).

My pre-loved teapot
5. T is for teapot. The big problem with plastic is that it never breaks down - or if it does, it breaks into microplastic. Even when we diligently recycle, most plastic is actually "downcycled" into poorer quality products. 

So I've been trying to phase out packaging and plastics around the house, especially for things I do every day - like drink tea. I just bought a cute little teapot at an op shop and some Madura organic leaf tea to reduce my use of tea bags. I also try to buy products in glass (which can be endlessly recycled and is healthier for us) or wood (check out Planet Ark's Make it Wood info). 

Beeswaxed sandwiches
6. Bless the bees. Another plastic alternative I'm in love with is reusable beeswax wraps. Honeybee Wraps are made from beeswax-coated organic cotton so they're pretty as well as practical; I use them to wrap leftovers, sandwiches for picnics, cut avocados... I've also started wrapping cut pumpkin in a tea towel to keep it fresh in the fridge; it lasts much longer than in plastic.

7. Dress naturally. Most of us don't get around in polyester shirts or vinyl jackets, but there's a lot of plastic lurking in our clothes. Nylon, acrylic, lycra, even polar fleece, once heralded as the great recycler of PET bottles, turn out to be not so good for our oceans.

My new leather Birkenstocks: bought
online, delivered in a canvas bag

Synthetic fibres get into our waterways from our washing machines (fleece alone can shed 2000 fibres per wash!) and into marine organisms and the oceanic food chain. The best way to reduce this is to wear natural fibres as much as possible - wool, (organic) cotton, hemp, bamboo, leather - which feel so much better anyway. And some online retailers are shipping in canvas bags now instead of plastic.

8. Glass is good. The same goes for the things we use. When there's a choice, buy things in glass instead of plastic containers or made from natural materials rather than plastic, for the environment and for your health. I'm now using a bamboo toothbrush and chopping board, wooden spoons and bamboo dishcloths (washable and biodegradable), among other things.

9. Shop local. I try to do all my food shopping now at local farmers markets rather than supermarkets, which helps the farmers and reduces plastic: most food-growers are happy to re-use egg cartons or re-fill jars and often don't provide plastic bags. 

10. Clean & green (or: How amazing is baking soda?!). I went to a Green Cleaning workshop recently (run by Self Seed) and now have a shelf under the sink full of baking soda (which cleans just about anything), white vinegar, soap flakes, borax, recipes for making my own cleaning products, and assorted essential oils (eucalyptus, lavender and tea tree are the stars). There are also loads of green-cleaning tips on the interweb.

11. Natural beauty. This is a bit of a stumbling block for me. I don't wear makeup or use many beauty products and never buy microbeads, but most of what I use (moisturiser, shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste) comes in plastic. Maybe one day I'll wash my hair in apple cider vinegar and use a Juju menstrual cup and Moonpads, but for now I'm trying for natural, organic products in recyclable packaging and consulting Everyday Roots for home remedies. As Lauren Singer says in her How to have Zero Waste Sex video, it's about weighing things up: an STD is a lot more unsustainable than a non-reusable (obviously) rubber condom... 

Winter beach-combing
at South Ballina
12. Make a positive impact. Living with less plastic is about building sustainable habits - like picking up plastic whenever I'm on the beach, or anywhere - and supporting grassroots, community initiatives like Two Hands Project and Take 3 for the sea, which encourage people to pick up rubbish. 

I've started talking to shopkeepers about going plastic bag-free, and have contacted a couple of companies about the plastic they use - which can be as easy as posting something on social media (when I Tweeted about passengers receiving tiny 250ml water bottles on a domestic flight, I got a response from Qantas saying they'd look into it). And there are always petitions to sign. 

I've got a long way to go before I can fit a year's worth of rubbish in a jar, but I do believe individual action helps. There are seven billion of us on the planet after all. As anthropologist Margaret Mead famously said:

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it's the only thing that ever has."

For more inspiration, check out these blogs for tips on reducing plastic and waste of all kinds: by Melbourne-based Erin Rhoads, by Lauren Singer in NYC and by Bea Johnson in California.


  1. Great post, Louise, with lots of good ideas. Even though I try to be good there is so much plastic in my life. I'm going to investigate the Honeybee Wraps.

    But, with apologies to the planet, there's no way I'm going to give up on my all-man made bushwalking clothing. Most comfortable and lightweight combinations I've ever worn out and about. Warm when wet (unlike cotton) and merino thermals make me itch!

    1. Thanks Melanie, yeah I know what you mean: lightweight and quick-drying gear is so good for travelling and bushwalking (though I personally love all my Icebreaker merino gear). It's all about weighing things up I think, and being conscious: using plastic where we need to, and not using it where we can. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Very nice post. I like your blog. Thanks for sharing.

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  3. Hi Louise, I finally made it to your blog and having just read the above post, you've inspired me to look at some of my bad habits with plastic. Thanks!
    Hopefully see you in the surf soon.

    1. Thanks Roger, lovely to see you here! Glad you liked this post; I need to re-read it I think, so easy to fall into bad habits... Yes, see you in the sea!